The founder and namesake of The Williams Project, which became the LGBTQ+ think tank the Williams Institute at the University of California Los Angeles’ School of Law, died on Wednesday. He was 88 years old.
Brad Sears, the Institute’s founding executive director, announced Charles “Chuck” R. Williams’s death at a private gala rewards reception to honor champions in LGBTQ+ advocacy, including Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi, Friday evening at the conclusion of the 2023 Williams Institute Annual Update Conference.
“All of us are here at the Williams Institute event because 23 years ago, Chuck Williams had the vision and the generosity and the drive and cornered many of you over lunch or dinner to create the Williams Institute, which has had such an incredible impact on all of us in our world,” Sears said as he welcomed guests to UCLA’s Faculty Club. “I’m really sorry to have to start tonight by telling you that Chuck passed away on [Wednesday] night,” Sears added as a grown washed over the crowd.
“Chuck loved the Institute. You know that. You’ve seen him at every single event that we’ve ever had except this one. This is the first one that he and [his husband Stu Walter] will miss,” Sears said. “Chuck was so delighted that Nancy Pelosi would be coming this year. It gave him so much joy. He would be so thrilled.”
Sears joked that Williams “liked to count crowds, so he would be so thrilled that this is our largest event ever, and he would want nothing more than for all of us to carry on.”
On Tuesday, Sears released a statement announcing Williams’ passing to the Williams Institute community. In addition, Sears notably celebrated Williams and Walter's relationship.
“Chuck and Stu met in 1967 when they skied into each other arms on Lake Nacimiento,” Sears wrote. “Few today have had relationships that last 56 years. Even fewer relationships have been tested as theirs has been. 1967 was two years before Stonewall, every state except Illinois had sodomy laws, and gay men were regularly entrapped by the LAPD and sent for conversion therapy in state hospitals.”
Sears continued, “Chuck and Stu risked being arrested, fired, and confined if they were out. But they maintained their relationship through those years, the AIDS epidemic, and through the challenges that eventually come with being survivors and living a long full life. I am particularly honored to have witnessed Stu’s incredible strength during the past several months. He remained Chuck’s principal caregiver until the end, rarely left his side, and kept him comfortable at home.”
In 2001, Williams, Bill Rubenstein, Sears, and UCLA law scholars founded The Williams Project. Williams donated $2.5 million to UCLA Law School to establish the organization. A college or university had never received a larger gift to support a gay or lesbian academic program.
The Institute conducts rigorous, independent research on sexual orientation and gender identity law and policy. Their mission was to counter the pervasive bias of law, policy, and culture against LGBTQ+ people.
In 2006, the Williams Project merged with the Institute of Gay & Lesbian Strategic Studies to become the Williams Institute.
Williams gave more than $20 million over time to support the institute. His vision was to create an organization to level the playing field for LGBTQ+ people under the law.
Interdisciplinary research has been a critical component of the group's mission from the outset and continues to be a key component of its work today. For example, studies evaluated the impact of marriage equality, filed amicus briefs in seminal cases like Lawrence v. Texas, and examined the demographic characteristics of same-sex couples. In 2011, the Williams Institute published one of the first data-backed estimates of LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. This report shed light on how policy and law may the queer community.
Over the past two decades, the Williams Institute has provided expertise to policymakers, legislators, advocates, and the courts. Government agencies have benefited from the advice of Williams Institute scholars in improving LGBTQ+ data collection. Many have testified before Congress in hearings about the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and Employment Nondiscrimination Act.
In addition, the Williams Institute’s reports on the number of same-sex couples raising children were emphasized by Justice Anthony Kennedy during the landmark court case Obergefell v. Hodges, in which marriage equality was granted in the U.S.
Its staff of 25 experts includes economics, public health, demographics, public policy, psychology, and law specialists. According to its website, the organization has a budget of more than $4.5 million annually.
Williams once said that he put the institute at UCLA’s law school because, throughout his life and business, he often dealt with attorneys and thought that if anybody could fulfill his vision, it would be through the work of lawyers.
He was named one of the Out 100 in 2002. Out is a sibling publication of The Advocate under the equalpride family of brands.
In 2021, WIlliams had a message for those who would want to support the cause of LGBTQ+ equality in the future.
“We appreciate the support we’ve been given, we really do, but it’s not over. Our job isn’t over and we know it isn’t over. We’re going to work like heck to keep it going. And to do that we need people to support us,” Williams said.
Sears said that a memorial service is being planned for June, and details will be announced in the coming weeks.
Watch Chuck WIlliams and Stu Walter discuss the origins of The Williams Institute below.
Chuck Williams and Stu Walter: Williams Institute Founders Awardwww.youtube.com
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect Chuck Williams’s age.